The publication in the late 1970s and early 1980s of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality had an enormous impact on the shaping of research in the humanities and social sciences. For those working on the cultural history of the Victorian period, Foucault's writing opened up new ways of understanding the formation of gender and sexual identities and of working with a wide range of archival and primary material. The sexual politics of the nineteenth century were filtered through the sexual politics of the late twentieth century and methodologies were developed that allowed these connections to be explored as fully as possible. In recent years there has been a return to the history of sexuality in relation to the expanding field of gender and sexual history, but certain questions remain as pressing as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Using archival material drawn upon for a recent exhibition called ‘The Fallen Woman’ at the Foundling Museum, London, this piece returns to the core questions of identity and agency, sexuality, gender and class to explore how women narrated their sexual lives in the nineteenth century and negotiated the power of philanthropic institutions in this period.